Texas is one of the largest vegetable producers and consumers in the United States, ranking seventh in production value ($283 million) in 2017 [USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), 2019]. Commercial vegetable production areas in Texas are concentrated in the lower Rio Grande Valley and counties in South Texas, which comprise 19,152 ha (50.1%) of the state’s total harvested area of 38,229 ha (USDA NASS, 2019). Commercial vegetable production can be found in other regions of the state, such as the High Plains, but at a much smaller scale. For instance, in 2017, the total production area of select high-value vegetables, such as peppers and tomatoes, in the Texas High Plains was less than 300 ha (USDA NASS, 2019). However, because of the irrigated production of corn, wheat, and cotton, the High Plains comprise the largest agricultural production region in the state, with 5.4 million ha (57.2%) of the state’s total harvested area (USDA NASS, 2019).
The Texas High Plains has a windy, semi-arid environment; as a result, ET rates are very high. Therefore, irrigation is necessary to maximize crop yields and quality (Colaizzi et al., 2009; Evett et al., 2020). Approximately 67.7% of the state’s 1.6 million ha of irrigated land is located in the High Plains area, which shows the importance of irrigation for crop production in the region (Turner et al., 2011). The principal source of irrigation in the Texas High Plains is groundwater from the Ogallala Aquifer. Because extraction from the aquifer is exceeding recharge, the water table is dropping and pumping capacity has precipitously decreased in recent years (Furnans et al., 2017). As a result, the sustainability of traditional cropping systems in the Texas High Plains, as currently practiced, is at risk, and the same situation exists for production regions in other states that depend on the Ogallala Aquifer as a source of irrigation (Bruun et al., 2017; Evett et al., 2020; Furnans et al., 2017; Scanlon et al., 2012). Therefore, regional producers are in search of means to increase revenue while using less groundwater or at least the same amount of water, and this has renewed interest in vegetable production among regional producers. Consumer trends have also raised regional growers’ interests in vegetable production. Recent surveys revealed that consumers want nutritious and locally grown fresh market vegetables more than ever (Feldmann and Hamm, 2015; Yue and Tong, 2009), thereby allowing opportunities for local farmers. The concept of producing high-value vegetables is an alternative idea that could meet the growing demand for locally grown produce and optimize water use in the region. As such, how to optimize water use for growing high-value vegetables is a key research question.
Local farmers may be hesitant to adopt a new cropping system for many reasons. First, minimal research has been conducted to provide the information needed by local producers to change or diversify their crop selection. Research should provide reliable facts about vegetable production in the region to help growers make informed decisions. Second, each year in the springtime, consistent high winds up to 26.8 m·s−1 and hail threaten healthy growth of crops. These weather extremes impose severe production risks for all crops, but especially for high-value crops such as vegetables. Third, in addition to abiotic stress, there is always the threat of disease and insects, and these biological hazards to vegetables have not been adequately investigated in this region.
To protect crops from these abiotic and biotic threats, HT production systems have been suggested to ensure sustainable and stable cultivation of high-value crops in the region (Lee et al., 2018; Miles et al., 2012; Wallace et al., 2012). High tunnels, also called hoop houses, are defined as protective structures with a plastic cover that do not have active control of the internal growing environment, although one can passively control the microenvironment using management practices (e.g., heating and cooling via manual ventilation) (Lamont, 2005; Wien, 2009). This unique feature differentiates the protective environment of HTs from the controlled environment of greenhouses. Due to lower construction and operation costs than greenhouses and wide adaptability to various regions, many producers in different regions in the United States and worldwide use HTs to produce high-value crops such as leafy fruits and vegetables (Galinato and Miles, 2013), small berries (Demchak, 2009), and even fruit trees like sweet cherry (Lamont, 2009). Among these wide selections of crops, examples of the most popular and profitable crops grown in HT production systems are tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, cucumbers, and melons (Lamont, 2009). In the United States, with financial support from the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, the total acreage of HT production of these crops is expected to grow. The benefits of HTs for growing high-value crops include, but are not limited to, season extension (Galinato and Miles, 2013), protection from inclement weather and pathogens (Powell et al., 2014), and increased yields and quality of crops (O’Connell et al., 2012). Using HTs to produce high-value vegetables could be a potential solution to the environmental challenges that growers face in the Texas High Plains. In particular, protection from high, dry, and hot winds during the growing season could result in significant improvements not only in yields and fruit quality but also in WUE of cropping systems.
The objective of this study was to compare yields, fruit quality, crop water use, and crop WUE of a jalapeno pepper and tomatoes (both high-value vegetables) grown in HT production systems vs. OF production systems.
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